Welcome to the first Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the current coronovirus situation, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll be spending most of our time with the Robot and Empire series--tackled in a carefully chosen order--and next year, I plan to cover the entire Foundation series. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
I'll take "generic pulp sci-fi covers" for a thousand, Alex
By sheer happenstance, Joseph Schwartz, a mild-mannered, retired textile worker, has just been hurtled thousands of years into the future like a post-WWII Rip van Winkle. Though he is still on Earth, the world he emerges into is nothing like the one he has left behind. This new Earth is saturated with radiation, beset by the politics of a grand Galactic Empire that spans millions of independent planets scattered across the Milky Way, and boiling away with bitter anger just beneath the surface. Meanwhile, a famed archaeologist named Bel Arvardan comes to the Earth in search of mankind's origins, risking his professional credibility on the radical idea that humanity emerged from this very planet, which the rest of the Empire regards as little more than a provincial, backwater cesspool of a world. After a dangerous operation and a chance meeting, Schwartz and Arvardan both become unwittingly entangled in a dire conspiracy that threatens all human life in the galaxy.
Technically Asimov's first full-length novel (though most of Foundation had already been published as separate short stories), 1950's Pebble in the Sky feels like a novel written by a less experienced author. The plot is a bit convoluted, with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to its universe, and it's structured too much like a mystery novel even though it feels more like a fantasy thriller. I've praised Asimov in the past for using the genre trappings of mystery in his sci-fi stories, but this novel is proof that it doesn't always work.
For what it is, though, it's an enjoyable read, if a bit unweildy. Barring one or two awkward moments, Asimov's characters are strong, and his ability to utilize suspense is on full display. His writing style is already fully mature, in which he is able to describe even the driest bits of subject matter with a lightly poetic touch. The story builds to an exciting climax that has a few good surprises in store, and the whole thing is centered on a powerful theme of overcoming prejudice that is as poignant for 1950 America as it is universal in its morality.
I like this cover, but I don't know that it has anything to do with the actual story
I particularly love how Asimov is able to recontextualize events into wildly different interpretations that almost seem reasonable, as demonstrated most effectively by the character of Balkis, Secretary to the High Minister. Balkis is cunning and intelligent, but he sees events through a funhouse mirror of cold-war-style paranoia, determined to see benign coincidence as proof of enemy conspiracy. Granted, the overall plot does rely on some pretty outrageous coincidences, but it is genuinely satisfying to see Balkis recap the story so far in a new and deliriously twisted light.
All that said, there are just too many things going on, and far too much information is hidden from the reader for the first half of the story. The omniscient point of view jumps around to multiple characters--sometimes on opposite sides of the planet--but Asimov seems to spend more time making sure to obscure what these characters are thinking and doing than in actually telling the story. Some of this might be explained by the book's publication history, as his original version was a much shorter story called "Grow Old with Me" that Asimov had to almost double in length for publication as a novel. As such, there is a lot of filler, and it shows.
I also have to call out the romantic subplot between Dr. Arvardan and an Earth girl, Pola. I understand its importance to the plot and main themes of Asimov's story, but romance was not Asimov's strong suit, especially this early in his career. The two characters have very little chemistry together, and though there is room for an infatuation based on their first encounter--in which Pola is relatively helpless in the moment and Arvardan acts as a strong protector--their interactions never seem to evolve from this point, outside of a few forced moments of misunderstanding and reconciliation that seem more alien than emotional.
If this is a hardcover, you can tear the dust jacket a bit and it will still look okay
There is also no clear protagonist, unless you want to get fancy and declare our heroes the antagonists standing in the way of Secretary Balkis' plot. As dueling main characters, neither Schwartz nor Arvardan ever takes the lead in uncovering the conspiracy. They both just kind of stumble their way into it, not even realizing there is a conspiracy until very late into the novel, when it is explained to them by more ancillary characters. Arvardan is more of a stereotypical 50's hero, but when you actually look at what happens, he contributes nothing substantial, even as he punches through bad guys and gives rousing, emotional speeches in the final chapters.
Schwartz, on the other hand, has more of a typical hero's journey, in that he is introduced to us as a relatable everyman, is thrust into events against his will, initially resists the call to do anything about it, and then finally takes independent action to resolve the conflict. However, the resolution happens outside of view, while Asimov focuses more on Arvardan's ultimately futile attempts to convince the powers that be to act. It's a clever bit of narrative subversion, but it doesn't really work for the story. Schwartz is only a relatable protagonist at the start of the story, before he gains superpowers and becomes a background character to the more charismatic Arvardan, and his resolution of the plot feels like a deeply unsatisfying afterthought as opposed to the climax of the entire narrative.
On balance, then, Pebble in the Sky is a weak entry for Isaac Asimov, but it's not terrible golden age sci-fi by any stretch. Not only can its flaws be forgiven due to the fact that this was his first real novel, but it should be lauded for demonstrating a lot of Asimov's strengths. As first novels go, it's far superior to many, even those of fellow giants like Heinlein. Granted, Asimov had already earned a name for himself with his short fiction by this point in his career, but Pebble in the Sky is where he started playing in the major leagues. Everything that would make his subsequent novels legendary can be found here, albeit in primitive form.
-e. magill 7/23/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: